Covid Journal, July 17, 2020
Education is in Free Fall … It’s Time We Built A Net
You won’t hear this every day: Covid is good.
I mean … it’s done a good job of exposing how some of our most basic needs and services are quickly disabled by a few months of inactivity, lack of supervision or, in my case, increased attention to some of the details.
Across Canada’s, that number climbs into the hundreds of billions.
For personal context, I’m basically homeschooling my child and I’ve discovered a LOT of holes in the education system.
Since the Ford government is going to give us a whopping two weeks’ notice before throwing us all into the flames of a hell-driven fear of getting Covid in crowded schools without too many real ideas or suggestions, I’m going to take a crack.
The first thing I hear about is cost and then problem after problem after problem. With no solutions. ‘What will more teachers cost?’ ‘We don’t have enough space.’ ‘I won’t put my child at risk.’
It doesn’t seem like anyone else is throwing ideas around, so here goes.
The primary objective is smaller class sizes that engage in less ‘movement’ from hall to class and back to halls again.
And we need this on a national basis, so the federal government will have to get involved.
Extend The Length of High School
Cutting grade 13 in Ontario was a huge mistake. It was designed as a cost-saving measure, but we’re pumping kids into the post-secondary environment before so many of them have reached a level of maturity to handle full-blown adult life.
And the cost … we’ve shifted the cost of grade 13 from a general purse of the public school system to the shoulders of parents who want to help their kids go to university or college. Usually before they’re ready.
We need to bring back grade 13 and even give kids an option to continue further with grade school if they feel more comfortable doing so.
Not that a lot of people did this before, but under the context of Covid, we no longer judge students if they take longer to finish their high school diplomas. Grade ’14’? Grade ’15’? Why not? Given the right context, it’ll spread the schedule out for so many students that may not be ready for a return to full-time school yet, especially those who are more shocked by the threat of Covid than others.
Think about it: as students volunteer to extend their duration in high school, they start to make space for social distancing etc.
End Summer Break
How many times do we have to talk about how useless summer break is?
Summer break is a throwback to the days of farming (although there’s some suggestion that it’s just a cost issue as well), when young kids were needed on family farms to help with seeding, spreading and organizing crops. Not any more.
Now it’s all about summer camps and expensive getaways for a couple of weeks over the summer.
Or maybe it’s just a bullshit excuse for not buying air conditioners or ductless coolers for rooms that crack 40 degrees by noon. People would be happy to smash your window in to save a dog from heat, but a class full of sweltering youth and an instructor instead of spending a few grand on their comfort? ‘TOO MUCH’ they cry!
Anyways, if we broke the high school year into three even semesters with a week in between, we’d have a much better chance of expanding the amount of space available in classrooms and creating a much-needed sense of elasticity of programs for kids that need it.
Summer Camps as Course Credits
Every year (before Covid), parents would spend billions of dollars per year on different kinds of summer camps. They might include basic ‘guardian’ programs like day schools or more involved programs like month-long summer camps in the wilderness.
Summer camps would actually become part of an opportunity to engage in credit courses like extended education, Phys Ed, outdoor training and so on. They would get ‘institutionalized’ in the sense that they would be able to give credits for work done by students. As they recruit students, they get small subsidies by the government. Of course, this is a very slippery slope with pseudo-privatization of education.
By instituting summer programs / education / courses as well as sending some kids out to summer camps, you expand the range of available courses while also spread out the kids to different locations, reducing the risk of large crowds.
Sadly, many summer camps are actually CLOSING because of the indecision and lack of leadership with respect to how they might be a part of the solution to how to spread kids out across the system.
Students as Tutorial Assistants
If students have to earn 40 hours of volunteer service, maybe we should start paying them / compensating / rewarding them for participating as tutorial assistants and guides for younger grades.
This would address the question about the extra cost of teachers to account for spreading out classes.
It’s a trifecta of awesome: older students get experience teaching (and maybe some money), teachers get a little more slack with the volume of kids in their classes and younger students get an opportunity to hang with some of the older students, elevating the level of interaction in the overall community.
Teachers unions have grown to be some of the most powerful, financially-solvent and yet bloated, obstructionist organizations on the planet.
I’m not necessarily anti-union, but I also acknowledge that there’s a balance that has to be struck with the rights of taxpayers, teachers that just want to teach and, of course, the children.
The moment we forget that students are all of our clients, we have failed to serve them.
The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP) is worth more than $200 BILLION dollars. There are several more in Ontario and the rest of Canada. It’s conceivable that they’re sitting on more than $1 TRILLION in available assets.
That’s a lot of portables.
We need them at the table and taxpayers have a right to ask what they’re doing to reinvest in our education system.
Oh yeah … despite the need for more teachers, CHANGE and possibly a lot of cuts are coming.
Recording Best Practices for Online Instruction
Desire to Learn (D2L) – the privatized online education platform – is not going to cut it. It needs an update.
So far, the Ontario government’s efforts to ‘dabble’ with something new is just another trainwreck waiting to happen. Just like other special-interest-group driven policy decisions, the move to privatize public education will ultimately cost taxpayers more with substantially less service, quality and accountability.
We deserve better than this.
Take a look at platforms like Coursera, Masterclass or Udemy.
Would you rather be taking science classes from Neil Degrasse-Tyson or someone that’s subbing in for Phys Ed and reading word-for-word from a 1970s textbook on a weekly basis?
Don’t get me wrong – there are thousands of excellent teachers out there that care about what they are doing, but like all industries, there will always be a collection of people that are in it for the pension, summers off and ‘special training days’ that amount to little more than an extra long weekend here and there.
The best way to capture the passion of the really great teachers is to encourage them to use technology to create great classes and to also encourage a system of review and feedback that empowers parents and students.
Online, Part II
Sure … let the Ontario government plow ahead with their conflict-of-interest, pseudo-privatized online school system, but let’s have a real discussion about other options.
I mentioned three good options above. There are MANY more out there.
We need a system of recognizing credits earned via these platforms and adding them to a student’s school record and performance.
Ignoring this vast market of opportunity to educate our children in the comfort of their homes seems ludicrous to me.
We need to act on this quickly so that we can encourage a combination of homeschooling and online education that significantly reduces the number of kids in physical schools.
As an extension to the discussion about online learning, we need to discuss the opportunity of homeschooling.
Are there tax credit opportunities that could be created to reward parents for taking things into their own hands?
Can we at least compensate people for resources purchased?
To be honest, I don’t know a lot about homeschooling, but if students want it and parents are prepared to shoulder some of the responsibility, let’s keep it on the table.
Single teacher, multiple classes for younger grades so portables ‘belong’ to a specific group of kids with very little overlap.
Just … let’s not make them the crappy shipping container garbage cans that people think are a good idea. Let’s actually make them comfortable, functional portable units that can be enjoyed 12 months a year and not just a couple of weeks in October and April.
More portables offer up an incredible opportunity to spread kids out and mitigate the exposure with Covid.
End Library Subscriptions
This is another ‘hard to find’ stat, but the reality is that if we’re going to finance change in our education system, we have to find creative ways to stop spending money on things we don’t need or that have a marginal value to all students.
Libraries buy millions of dollars worth of media per year: books, magazines, newspapers, CDs, movies, music and more so that students have this content available at their fingertips.
Guess what? There’s this thing called the internet. It’s a magical place that has all of these periodicals online.
While many kids in the Ontario system may not have a laptop or phone, libraries should at least make online access their greatest priority and ruthlessly slash their periodicals budget.
Defund: the Catholic School System, Many School Boards, Even Universities
So … we need money.
No one has it.
Although, they do, especially bloated school boards that are going to have to draw a LOT more scrutiny over the coming years as we try to address budget concerns. With school boards of all stripes garnering 86% of the budget for education, the public will need a better understanding of how those boards are using our funds and they will have to do a better job of responding to the needs of parents.
Roughly half of all of our spending is on duplication related to the Catholic School Board (CSB) system. It has to go. Elimination of the CSB will go a long way to funding some of the response to the Covid crisis, but it will ALSO help squash so many human rights complaints that have been filed against the system and which exposes ALL taxpayers to an antiquated way of thinking when it comes to the rights of citizens of different communities, especially members of LGBTQ, First Nations and other non-Catholic groups.
It’s hard to get a solid number on how much we spend on universities and colleges in Ontario, but some estimates range between $5 and $10 billion per year. That doesn’t seem like much, but I want to ask the obvious question: why is it anything?
If universities and colleges collect tuition, sponsorships, advertising dollars and so on, why are they not finding ways to be 100% self-funded?
This pile of cash would go a LONG way to reducing the burden on K-12 and would actually result in a better cohort of students year after year if we actually do things right.
If they’re looking for suggestions, here are a few:
- Sell the hundreds of thousands of acres of real estate and buildings that you own
- Raise tuition for international students
- Increase the revenue from sponsorships, name placement and other advertising
- ‘Lease’ some of your space to public schools so that they can continue to spread out their footprint for smaller classes
As I said, just a few quick ideas. Please feel free to comment and leave your ideas.
Smaller Schools = Less Commuting
We continue to allow massive schools to be built to contain thousands of kids, teachers and administrators.
This model is a fail.
Schools aren’t malls (and malls are a terrible blight on our landscape as well).
Of course, this leads into a much bigger discussion about how the sprawl model of suburban development is a fail.
The point I want to make today: we need to make our schools much smaller and consider some of the benefits: no buses needed to transport kids all over the city, no long lines of parents parking their cars dropping kids off and most kids choosing to walk to school because it’s literally right around the corner.
It’s hard to guage just how much is being spent on school buses to clog our busy roads, but some estimates put it around $370-$500 per student per year. At roughly 130,000 students in Ontario in K-12, that’s a cost of roughly $1 billion per year spent on mostly private companies to deliver our kids from house to school and back again. In Toronto’s Peel region alone, that budget was $163 million and that was back in 2014.
And did you know that there are thousands of accidents per year involving school buses (including many fatalities each year)? Most of them relate to either bus condition, driver incompetence or student behaviour.
No way. What a waste. We have to plan better and SOON.
We can’t rebuild our neighbourhoods, but maybe it’s time we consider what we use for buses: the 50′ whales that we see on the road are just chewing up asphalt. How about some smaller, more nimble vehicles?
While I call for cuts to the Catholic School system, there may be a way to make everyone happy.
I no longer subscribe to the maniacal and twisted thoughts of Benjamin Freidman, the world’s modern-day, right-wing economist, but he frequently spoke about a credit system for schools that parents would use to choose the school that they liked best.
I’m NOT proposing that. It leads to elitist instutitions collecting all of the funds, leaving needy schools locked out for revenue.
But let’s think about this: private schools are notorious for being smaller in terms of sheer number of students, but possessing better student/teacher ratios that result in smaller class sizes and, ultimately, Covid risk to students.
With this in mind, I think there’s an opportunity to talk about how we can encourage more private school activity and growth without jeopardizing our public school system. Perhaps if you had a certain maximum family income (eg. $100,000 per year), you might get a rebate if you send your kid to a private school. Normally, people that can afford private school education would get nothing from this, but people in lower brackets might ‘win the lottery’ and give their child a different option.
Again, it’s an idea that makes me a little queazy, but if we’re trying to spread students out across the system, we have to at least understand if there’s an opportunity or not.
More Revenue Sources
We’re going to need more money, but the source is always the same: you, me and all of the other ‘regular’ people in the room.
We’re tapped out.
Of course, there are money trees that our politicians seem to refuse to want to shake:
- land taxes, especially for those sprawling malls and parking lots for WalMart and Loblaws
- wealth taxes on the super rich
- collection of taxes/levies for online transactions that currently aren’t being paid (and that are resulting in a crushing level of competition against those smaller companies that are collecting taxes correctly and honestly)
- elimination of tax havens and capital flight
- an increase in the HST
- no more corporate bailouts
- use ‘unconventional’ spaces for education. Abandoned malls, parks, even old churches that are no longer in use
- sponsorships and advertising
For those who know me, they’d describe me as a ‘social capitalist’. What’s key to my belief system is the notion of equality. If you’re telling everyone to pay their fair share and you do everything you can to dodge taxes, skirt your responsibility in society and basically drift off of everyone else’s contributions, you lose your right to entitlements.
And I know the last comment about getting corporate money for public education is a disaster waiting to happen, but I want to open the conversation and maybe get feedback and ideas from more creative people out there that might be able to describe a way to collect more from companies without feeling like we’re making a deal with the devil. My rationale: companies are, in a massive way, the primary beneficiaries of a well-educated, well-rounded and responsible cohort of students year after year. Yes, they pay taxes, but they all seem too willing to pay for promotional opportunities at any turn.
There are people out there talking about how to change our school system.
Unfortunately, politicians, unions and others are not listening.
What’s it going to take? Are we going to ram kids into Covid breeding grounds only to end their lives early? Will enough bereived parents finally demand change we all need?
- One School System – calls to defund the Catholic School Board
- People for Education
- Ontario Families for Public Education
- Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents (homeschooling)
- Parents Supporting Education Workers
- Ontario Parent Action Network
Apologies, of course, to those I missed (feel free to add links or comments below).
The greatest challenge we face is that we’re in a race against time. We need action and we need people that will offer up the right amount of flexibility and elasticity of ideas in order to ensure that ALL of our students get through this phase of Covid and might actually have something positive to say about what we’ve done when they’re on the other side.